The middle entry of a film trilogy, at least on paper, immediately seems like it would be the most difficult to plot out in a way that allows that entry to stand on its own, without the context of the films that precede and follow it. Hew too close in your second entry—which must be considered a “sequel,” even if the trilogy is all being released at once—and the novelty grinds to a halt, while potentially exposing the shortcomings of the original in the process. Diverge too dramatically, and you risk muddying the aesthetic of the trilogy as a whole. Ultimately, the easiest route is simply to play things relatively safe, handing off the torch to the third film and allowing that entry to cement viewers’ final impression of the series.
That’s pretty much Fear Street Part 2: 1978 in a nutshell. This second entry of director Leigh Janiak’s ambitious R.L. Stine adaptation trilogy for Netflix hits the ground running, with plenty of momentum provided by the surprisingly visceral Fear Street: 1994, and although it follows through on that film’s lively visuals and gruesome deaths, it finds itself hurting somewhat for compelling characters and variety in what it’s able to offer. Bound by its retro summer camp theming and the obvious horror allusions that theming implies, 1978 is a more lightweight diversion that occasionally finds itself spinning its wheels, although it does redeem itself with a startling transition into the jumping off point for final entry Fear Street: 1666. Nevertheless, it feels like middle child syndrome has likely come into play on this second chapter.
It doesn’t help that the entire film is essentially told in a single flashback, as the mysterious C. Berman (Gillian Jacobs) narrates to protagonist Deena (Kiana Madeira) and brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.) about the events of 16 years earlier, when she and her teenage sister came face to face with the curse of witch Sarah Fier as residents of Camp Nightwing. The Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp references do abound, but the true themes of this entry are the struggles of these young folks against a sort of predeterminism—much is made of the impossibility of “getting out” of the unlucky town of Shadyside, or bucking an entire town’s expectation for your future. In a manner similar to Stephen King’s Stand By Me, in which Chris Chambers laments the fact that “everyone knows I’ll turn out bad,” these kids see no real chance to get beyond the shallow mold that life has set for them.
It’s not a bad basis for this slasher-inspired story, but Fear Street: 1978 isn’t able to do much with it—perhaps relevant is the fact that director Janiak doesn’t have a screenplay credit on this installment, as she does on 1994 and 1666. The time period in particular feels less relevant to the plot this time around, being communicated largely by a ceaseless parade of licensed music from the likes of Neil Diamond, Kansas, Joan Jett and Blue Öyster Cult, rather than how these characters comport themselves. The Romero-esque themes of racial and socioeconomic tensions reappear from 1994, but the critique this time is being delivered in a more direct and heavy handed way, literally pitting the residents of unlucky (and correspondingly more diverse) Shadyside against the sneering white aristocrats of Sunnyvale in the camp’s annual “color war” competition. No one is going to miss this subtext.
What I find perhaps most surprising, though, is the markedly slower pace of 1978 than the previous installment, as this sequel takes a good 45 minutes to truly light the fuse, lacking the brutal spark of kindling possessed by 1994’s Scream-inspired intro. It eventually settles into a nicely spooky, witchy vibe once the denizens of the camp stumble across the former home of Sarah Fier, but the story as a whole feels significantly more linear than the film that preceded it, particularly because it takes place entirely on the summer camp grounds rather than the bevy of unique locations seen in 1994. One wonders why 1978 wasn’t written with a story that could bounce back and forth between the two time periods throughout, keeping the core characters of the first installment in the forefront. Instead, this straight retelling of the events of 16 years earlier essentially puts the story of Deena and Sam from 1994 entirely on pause for 100 minutes, right when you were getting invested in it. Only in the conclusion do the events of 1978 really start to pay off in a truly satisfying way, when it becomes clear how they will connect to the larger story happening around them. It suggests that this trilogy works best when it’s keeping its eye on the bigger picture.
On the plus side, the legitimate horror elements of Fear Street: 1978 are quite visceral, and like the preceding film it manages to really imbue each swing of the axe with sickening impact. There’s no single kill here that can top the “bread slicer incident” of 1994, but it does contain a gnarly collection of gory axe murders, and such sights as a headless body falling down a hole, landing heavily atop another character’s already compound fractured leg. To which we can only say: Ouch. On this front, 1978 continues to deliver an experience that is surprisingly mature in tone for any project inspired by young adult fiction.
In the end, Fear Street: 1978 is less effective as a self-contained story, but that should hardly be a surprise. A significant portion of the final assessment of this entry, and indeed the series as a whole, will come down to how Fear Street: 1666 weaves together a denouement that gives new significance to the events of both previous films, so it’s entirely possible that 1978 will look better in retrospect. In the moment, what it does do well is tease the increasingly metaphysical conclusion that is swiftly approaching, which looks to shed some of the “slasher movie” trappings and embrace the idea of a supernatural evil that resonates and repeats across centuries and generations of lives. Here’s hoping that the Fear Street trilogy can stick the landing.
Director: Leigh Janiak
Writers: Zak Olkewicz
Stars: Sadie Sink, Emily Rudd, Jordana Spiro, McCabe Slye, Gillian Jacobs, Ryan Simpkins
Release date: July 9, 2021 (Netflix)
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.